Well, I guess that it is about time that I addressed this issue. Much has been written about PTSD, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, and it is a worthy subject of discussion and a real situation. The mental agony cannot be ignored even after attending to any physical injuries. Even if there wasn’t physical injury, there are still issues that manifest themselves after the fact. During World Wars I & II (isn’t it a shame that we have to number world wars?) soldiers were diagnosed with “Shell Shock,” or “Battle Fatigue.”
Survivor Guild is that gut wrenching pain you get when the fellow next to you “buys it” and you don’t. Why him and not me? This too can be a life changing situation. All too often it become a cross that one bears, and tries to reconcile for the rest of their life. But the feeling extends beyond that instance. Serving with “boots on the ground” in ‘Nam, I had relatively safe duty. Still, there were situations with which we had to deal. Surviving them, although much different from that of the combatant seeing the man next to him die, still leaves an impression, and a question. How did I get through this?
I know, but in a gentler way.
Waaaay back in 1964 I tried to enlist in the U.S. Navy. I wanted to be a member of the Underwater Demolition Teams! These were the men who “swam for a sneak and a peak, made a bam then scrammed!” Read the book or see the movie “Up Periscope” if you are not familiar with this group. Failing the physical examination I settled for a civilian career. Oh, the recruiter assured me that he knew someone who could “get me in,” but I realized that if that actually happened, I could not possible make it through UDT school. The modern counterpart would be The SEALs.
I was classified as “1Y,” which basically meant that if the enemy were coming ashore on the East Coast, they would call on me, after the women and children were called to duty! We called “1Y” the “Life Boat Division!” Women and Children first!
My new motto was “get a job, get a car, get a girl!”
Yes, General Motors Assembly Division as a Clerk Typist in Plant Security. Yes, a 1965 Chevrolet Malibu Super Sport, maroon. Yes, Mary Ann.
Pretty funny how things changed when the U.S. involvement in Southeast Asia got hot.
I was reclassified into the category “1A.” Oh, I did not have to go back to Fort Holabird for another physical, but I was upgraded by mail! I went to my local Draft Board and asked just what this meant. I was told that I would be getting my draft notice within a month, probably with the next mailing.
I did some research. The local newspaper printed a daily report of the deaths of our servicemen in Vietnam. It did not take too much intelligence to see that the death rate for enlisted men in the Army and the Marines was a lot higher than the death rate for enlisted men in the Air Force or the Navy. Basically, officers in the Air Force flew the planes that were being shot down. I took it to mean that if I were in the Air Force, and in Vietnam, my chances of survival would be greater than if I were in the Army. Marines were not even a consideration, and my previous experience with a Navy recruiter soured me on that course.
When someone asks why I joined the Air Force, the trite answer is “I scored high enough on the entrance exams to have a choice.” All well and good, but basically, I don’t like camping. I also am not an “outdoorsy” person. I also don’t like the idea of combat. I’m not a Conscientious Objector, I just don’t want someone trying to kill me on a one to one basis.
So I ended up in the Air Force, and my first assignment was Keesler AFB, Biloxi, Mississippi. Word there was that it was the place you would spend your entire enlistment. It was a training base, and seemed like a safe haven. Except for hurricanes. Like Hurricane Camille. That’ll be another post.
Getting through that was one thing, but then I got my orders to Vietnam. When my Mother heard about that, she was so shocked that she lost her voice for about a week. There was little consolation in the fact that for every front line soldier there had to be at least six of us “in the rear” supporting his effort.
I was assigned to a Photo Processing and Intelligence Facility at Tan Son Nhut Air Base, Republic of Vietnam. RF-4C Phantoms flew photo recon missions and I was part of the team on the ground processing and handling the film and prints. Our Main Gate opened up to Saigon itself. Seemed like a pretty safe place to work.
Except for the possibility of “Sappers” leaving satchel charges under the photo trailers, which were elevated off the ground. These trailers were elevated to assure that they were level since the ground may have been uncertain and the chemistry used inside for film and print processing had to be level. Before our shift started we were all mustered around the trailers to “clean up the area.”
Except for the fact that snipers were known to take out anyone in uniform once they ventured off the base, especially officers. I have a story for that, too! See the post “Airman of the Quarter!”
Except for the fact that even common items found could be booby-trapped. Zippo lighters could be loaded with an ounce of C-4 explosive. Enough to take out the fellow lighting a smoke and the person nearest him.
Except for the disgruntled Vietnamese Soldier, crippled and unable to support himself and/or his family who decides to kill himself and some Americans by walking into a crowded bar and pulling the pin on a concealed hand grenade. Yes, this happened. I was there.
Except for the willing bar girl, knowing that she had a venereal disease, who would willingly pass that along to a serviceman. Result, a person off duty until the appropriate drug was administered and to take affect. Time taken from medical personnel and time lost to a duty station during this conflict.
Except for the unattended Jeep outside of a bar that was found to have explosives placed so that when the key was turned…Thankfully one of those bar girls told me to get off the balcony before something happened. The men from Explosive Ordinance arrived and neutralized that threat.
Does any of this fall under the heading of Survivor Guilt? Maybe not, but still I wonder what would have happened “if?” If any of these things happened to someone I knew. Some of these did happened to people I knew. At least one happened to me. Survivor Guilt. So complex a subject. So lingering in my mind. Not just for combat troops, but also for us REMFs!